Editor's Note: Founded in 1919, this year marks the 100th anniversary for South County Health. As part of our community outreach efforts, The Independent has partnered with the organization on a series of stories related to the history and mission of South County Health. They will run periodically in our newspapers this year and will appear online on our website at IndependentRI.com.
WAKEFIELD, R.I. – The Cottage Hospital that opened in 1919 was small, but from the start it needed employees to keep it running.
Dr. John Paul Jones, the founding physician, and his wife, nurse Carolyn Jones, lived in the house at 23 Kenyon Ave., but they could not do its work alone.
They needed nurses who worked and slept in shifts. They needed someone to clean the house, cook the meals, and wash the linens.
In the 1925 census, Carolyn Jones is listed as head of this household, with four employees living there as well: nurses Clara M. Jacobson, 25, Anna M. Hawkins, 31, and Sara M. Jones, 24, and housekeeper Grace Perry, 25.
Solid statistics are hard to come by, but in 1982, hospital Vice President Robert F. Menard estimated hospital employment in a presentation to the South Kingstown Town Council: In 1930, 24 employees; in 1940, 40; in 1950, 75; in 1960, 89; in 1970, 257; and in 1980, 432.
As the hospital grew from its modest beginnings to a new brick building, and as wings were added and divisions acquired, its economic impact would multiply. Today, South County Health – the parent name of South County Hospital – includes South County Home Health, South County Surgical Supply, and medical and wellness facilities with Express Care centers in Westerly and East Greenwich. The company employs 1,500 people in full- and part-time positions.
“They’re the second largest employer in the community, and not just in terms of sheer numbers but value per position,” said Stephen A. Alfred, who served as South Kingstown town manager from 1976 to 2018. “They’re well paying, professional positions. That’s very important.”
Maggie Thomas, the hospital’s chief human resources officer, estimates its payroll impact alone at $106 million, which does not include the many local businesses it contracts with for goods and services, from Holland Electric to Belmont Market.
In addition, Thomas says, the hospital prides itself on a generous benefits package that prioritizes the health and well-being of its employees.
A tight-knit workplace
Besides doctors and nurses, workers in many other departments have found the hospital offers not just a job, but a career. Here are a few stories of long-term employees:
When Joyce MacManus was hired by South County Hospital in 1971 as an X-ray technician to cover the on-call evening shift, she could expect about a dozen patients a night to be referred to her from the Emergency Room. She was paid $1.25 an hour and a fee per procedure - $3 for a hand X-ray, for example, and $5 for a skull.
From this modest beginning she built a career as a full-time employee, and today she performs CT scans.
“This hospital provides tremendous benefits,” she said. “Because we had the old-fashioned pension, I didn’t have to contribute to it. We always had roll-over sick time so it would accumulate … Our health benefits were always wonderful. This hospital has been amazing for that kind of support.” (The hospital now has a defined contribution retirement plan, although many former employees continue to collect a traditional pension.)
The hospital also was a family, where employees took care of each other. MacManus learned this during the administration of President Ralph Misto, when he heard she was having trouble paying her taxes. He arranged for her to be compensated for her accrued sick and vacation time so she could clear the debt.
“That’s how close we all were,” she said.
That sort of caring hit home for employee Sonya Gardiner in 2006, when she was diagnosed with leukemia.
Gardiner was hired in 1998 in Environmental Services, to perform housekeeping duties – changing bed linens, cleaning rooms and corridors. About two years later she transferred to Central Supply. This, too, was a physical job, sterilizing instruments and cleaning the large autoclave sterilizer.
After about five years, the “wear and tear” on her body prompted her to apply for a more sedentary position in OR scheduling. Today, she does data entry for the hospital’s physician practice, South County Medical Group.
In October 2006, a pain in her lower abdomen prompted Gardiner to visit the ER. It turned out her spleen was enlarged.
“God works in mysterious ways. He got me to the hospital because of a pain, but it just happened to be in a different area. And then when they did the bloodwork all the white counts came back humongously high.”
Gardiner eventually underwent a bone marrow transplant at Dana Farber in Boston. Throughout her two years of recovery, her hospital family helped her cope.
“They were wonderful. The staff was awesome,” she said. “There were many people that were rallying for me, collecting time for me.” Employees also organized a bone marrow registration drive for Gardiner and raised money to help her during her treatment.
Today she’s actually grateful for her leukemia diagnosis. “It’s very hard to explain, but you know the feeling that you’re just loved more than you ever thought.”
It started with work-study
Shawn Bell credits her career as a respiratory therapist to the six-month work study she did at the hospital while a senior at what was then Prout Memorial High School in Wakefield.
The year was 1979, and Mary Kehoe, a nurse educator and family friend, helped her secure the opportunity. She was supposed to rotate among departments, but Bell landed immediately where she wanted to be: respiratory therapy.
After receiving a bachelor of science degree in the field from Quinnipiac College, she did an internship at Stanford and began working in California. She moved back to Rhode Island in 1988, but did not return to South County Hospital until 1993.
In the interim, she earned a master’s degree in extracorporeal technology from Northeastern University in 1991 and worked at Rhode Island Hospital and Massachusetts General, operating the heart-lung machine during open heart surgery. “I found that to be very challenging. I cried every day.”
Today she is a full-time respiratory therapist, treating patients in every department of the hospital.
“It was so much more rewarding” than the intensity of working in the OR. “I will say I do love my job. I love the patient contact. I like to make a difference, and I think we do.”
Maureen Klaboe is another longtime employee who found many opportunities at the hospital.
She started as a full-time lab technologist in 1979. She was 21 years old.
In the 1990s, she was appointed laboratory information system (LIS) coordinator, helping to set up a new lab computer system. In 2002, she was tapped to supervise the phlebotomists. In 2011, she was promoted to the IT Department, where her computer experience in the lab was put to use throughout the hospital.
Over the years, the hospital’s tuition reimbursement program and its medical scholarship helped Klaboe advance her education. In 1995 she received a bachelor of science degree in health care administration from what is now Roger Williams University.
“It’s just been a fabulous place to work,” Klaboe said. “I love the town. I live close by. I love the people here in the hospital.”
She said that longtime hospital President Donald L. Ford helped set a tone that employees mattered.
“I give him a lot of credit for perpetuating the culture of community and family. Back then he didn’t advocate for ID badges because he thought everyone should know everyone’s name.”
She remembered the hospital’s softball team, company barbecues and informal nights out as building this camaraderie.
“I’ve always felt like the hospital really cares for and values their employees,” she said. “I think it’s a great place to work.”